Good Luck Finding The Reality in Black Reality TV

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NBAE/Getty Images
NBAE/Getty Images

The latest entry in the celebrity-driven, black family, reality TV phenomenon is Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love, which debuted last week, oddly enough, on Oxygen, a channel better-known for Bad Girls Club. For those who don't follow professional sports the celebrity in this series is Deion Sanders, who was a bona fide superstar in both the NFL and Major League Baseball, and was nicknamed "Primetime" because of his penchant for the spotlight. Pilar, his second wife, is a former model/actress.

But if Deion & Pilar seems an odd choice for the Oxygen network, especially after its Tori Spelling reality series, you're unaware of the growing fascination with black-family reality TV. For me they are a guilty pleasure—the more outrageous the better. But at least I know they aren't real. I suspect that may not be true for a lot of viewers, particularly if they don't really know any black people.

The simple formula—high-profile black celebrity and family live a scripted and sometimes not-so-scripted life in front of the camera—has proven to be a ratings winner. This combination of pseudo-reality and celebrity—for which TV audiences seem to clamor, follows a pattern in which mainstream viewers seem extraordinarily willing to buy into a patently false lifestyle portrayals (The Hills, The Kardashians) in which the fantasy of effortlessly acquired wealth and material excess yields a loyal following on TV, turning nobodies into red carpet somebodies, while reviving sagging celebrity careers.

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Add black folks to the mix of reality/celebrity/fantasy shows, and you've got the perfect antidote to HBO's The Wire, arguably just as much a reality show as anything else on TV.

Deion & Pilar follows the success, if not buzz, of Snoop Dogg's Father Hood on E!, in which the rapper tries to instill discipline in his brood, against the backdrop of his own history of decadence.

In one episode, Snoop's wife tries to introduce a healthier diet by banning him from fried chicken. In another episode, Snoop takes a yoga lesson, and in a third, soccer star David Beckham gives Snoop's kid's soccer lessons. Ah, the life of a gangsta-rapper-turned-doting-dad.

Gotti's Way, another popular reality series on VH1 follows newly acquitted hip-hop mogul Irv Gotti as he tries to revive his record label while in the midst of a messy divorce and the difficulty it has caused in his relationship with his children. MTV has Run's House, a reality series based on the blended family of Run DMC rapper Joseph Simmons. After he and his wife had tried to have another child, the season ends with the arrival of an adopted newborn.

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In both Gotti's Way and Run's House, at least one episode included a scene that caused the stars to angrily demand that the cameras stop rolling to avoid revealing very raw, emotional and presumably unscripted moments. There is a subtle sense that this is yet another manipulation meant to suggests the real pathology of black family life.

Even the black cable networks have taken a stab at their own family reality series: Last year, TV One's reality series I Married a Baller, featured former NFL running back Eddie George and his wife, Tamara Johnson-George, a former R&B singer with SWV. The show was similar to Deion & Pilar, but without the 40,000 square foot mansion and 112-acre ranch that the Sanderses own.

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In 2007, BET's Keisha Cole: The Way It Is, featuring the R&B artist brought "keepin' it real" to reality TV. The Way It Is followed Cole's family, which includes her biological mother Frankie, who had just been released from prison after a three-year stint for drug possession and her sister Neffe and her children, after they moved from Oakland to Atlanta, where the singer was better able to provide for them. The finale, in which the star was to learn the identity of her biological father through DNA testing, earned BET its highest rating for original programming.

And let's not forget Being Bobby Brown, the pioneering black reality show on Bravo that started it all.

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"There's always the danger that these exaggerated images have an impact on the way black families are seen," says media critic and author Donald Bogle, who admits that he doesn't follow many reality shows. "Flavor of Love and I Love New York harkens back to some age-old images. But much like those images of black people before, they were 'crafted' by writers," says Bogle, who wrote Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. "Most reality shows are scripted. So what you see in reality shows is what the writers and producers want you to see. The danger," he adds, "is when there is a lack of diversity of black images."

As reality TV goes, Deion & Pilar is pretty mild. The series seems more sitcom than reality TV. One episode deals with Deion's midlife crisis. Another has Deion teaching his younger children about the birds and the bees. And a couple of shows revolve around him being an overprotective father when his oldest daughter, Deiondra, starts dating. His wife Pilar, a glamorous stay-at-home mom, manages to find time to start a modeling agency, spice up their sex life, all while complaining about her husband's refusal to do housework. As if we really believe she spends her time cleaning up behind him.

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What's missing from this latest crop of reality shows is the reality, the connection with real life. One of the few black family reality series that went beyond entertainment was Black.White, the controversial series produced by Ice Cube that aired on FX in 2006. For those who missed it, the six-episode reality series involved two families—one black, one white—who swapped racial identities using elaborate makeup. Each family lived as another race for several weeks, revealing a candor that was far more interesting and compelling than the current crop of scripted, celebrity reality series.

Unfortunately, Black.White was one of the few times a reality series involved a "real" black family, even if they were pretending to be white.

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Evette Porter is an editor at Harlequin.

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